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Azrieli prize winners explore diversity of Jewish music

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Sharon Azrieli, centre, congratulates 2020 Azrieli Music Prize winners Keiko Devaux, left, and Yotam Haber. (Danylo Bobyk photo)

The distinct musical tradition of the Jews of Rome, who trace their lineage back to their dispersal after the Second Temple’s destruction, will be revived in a new composition that’s being written by the latest winner of a $50,000 commission from the Azrieli Foundation.

Yotam Haber, a Dutch-born composer who’s based in New Orleans, is the recipient of the 2020 Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music, the organization announced on Nov. 7.

His work-in-progress will receive its premiere at the Azrieli Music Prizes (AMP) concert on Oct. 22, 2020, at Salle Pierre Mercure in Montreal, performed by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, a chamber orchestra in residence at the Université de Montréal (UdeM).

The winner of the 2020 AMP for the best new major work of Jewish music is Yitzhak Yedid, an Israeli-born Australian. The Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music also carries a $50,000 cash award.

His “Kiddushim Ve’ Killulim” (“Blessings and Curses”) for voice and ensemble had its debut in 2017. The AMP jury hailed the piece for its unconventional synthesis of ancient religious musical sources with contemporary Western music.

For the first time, a third AMP winner was selected this year for the new Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music (not with a Jewish theme). It goes to Keiko Devaux, a composer of music for ensembles, dance and film, who’s currently completing a doctorate in composition at UdeM.

These latter two works will also be performed at the concert in October.

This is the third round of the biennial AMP competition, which named its first two laureates (in Jewish music) in 2016. In total, the package for each prize winner is valued at over $200,000, when considering their works’ exposure at the premiere and two subsequent international performances, as well as a recording on the Analekta label.

READ: PRIZE-WINNING AZRIELI JEWISH MUSIC RECORDING RELEASED

When she established the AMP in 2014, Sharon Azrieli, an accomplished soprano and scholar of music, wanted to encourage new high-quality orchestral Jewish music.

Azrieli stressed that the competition is open to anyone in the world, regardless of their backgrounds. Although the two Jewish music laureates this year are Jewish, she noted that three of the past four were not.

The chair of the AMP advisory council, Boris Brott, the artistic director of the Orchestre classique de Montréal, said the latest open call drew submissions from 22 countries on five continents.

Haber – who has lived in Israel, Nigeria and the United States since leaving Holland – is an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory.

His work-in-progress, a song cycle titled, Estro Poetico Armonico III, reflects his decade-long research into the Jews of Rome.

Up until the last century, Rome’s Jewish community prided itself as being the direct descendants of the Jews who lived in Jerusalem before the 70 CE dispersal and claimed to have preserved the music of the Second Temple. Having lived for centuries in the ghetto, the community’s liturgy was not influenced by the surrounding society, Haber said.

He said that he owes much to the New York philanthropist and lover of antiquity, Leon Levy, who recorded the cantillations of the Roman Jews in the 1940s and ’50s, when they were still in use.

Haber is planning to meld these ancient melodies with modern Israeli poetry sung by a mezzo soprano.

Yedid – a concert pianist who lives in Brisbane, where he teaches at the Queensland Conservatorium – said he is particularily interested in integrating opposites: East and West, old and new, religious and non-religious.

He is bringing together his own Syrian and Iraqi ancestors’ prayer modes with the unfettered techniques of free jazz.

The jury found his “Kiddushim Ve’ Killulim,” which was written for 13 players, “brilliant, dramatic, slyly humorous and unquestionably Jewish.”

Devaux’s as yet untitled proposal reflects the “tapestry” that characterizes Canada today. The Nelson, B.C., native starts out from her own heritage: her father was an immigrant from France and her mother is a second-generation Japanese-Canadian.

She is well versed in a variety of genres, from classical to jazz and even rock.

The jury found her planned work for 14 musicians “mysterious, compelling and beautiful. Her proposal exhibits a clever and original inquiry into what it means to be Canadian that is both honest and, in a way, hard-hitting.”

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